Up Front: Pornography in Perspective


Few issues are more controversial and emotion-rousing than pornography. So when the editors decided to commission Martin Morse Wooster, Washington editor of Harper's magazine, to investigate the government's anti-pornography efforts, we knew what to expect. Inevitably there will be some irate letters to the editor, some canceled subscriptions. We don't at all welcome such things, but so goes the business of publishing a magazine of ideas—if we were making everybody happy, we wouldn't be doing our job very well.

When we first discussed the idea of doing an article on the government's anti-porn campaign, we debated for some time just how the issue ought to be covered. There was, for example, the possibility of inviting a philosopher to write a "think piece" condemning censorship, in the Voltairean vein of defending the individual's right to free expression even if what is being expressed is execrable.

But we decided instead to focus on the the Justice Department's specific methods in its present war on porn—methods that, as Wooster reveals, involve subtle and not-so-subtle perversions of both science and logic. Indeed, it was the Justice Department's sponsorship of dubious porn research that initially aroused our interest in the subject. An internal memo, written by one of the editors more than a year ago, noted that censorship advocates were already citing these studies as "proof" that pornography is harmful. The memo raised the possibilities of biased research and of favoritism in the Justice Department's funding of this research. Wooster's investigation bore out those suspicions.

Our concern in covering this issue is not to defend pornography per se but to bring attention to what we believe is a serious attack on freedom. As Wooster carefully documents in his article, the Justice Department and its allies are trying to implement a national policy of "prior restraint" regarding erotica and pornography: just as gun-control extremists want to ban handguns on the grounds that possession of these guns can lead to crime, the anti-porn forces want to prohibit pornography because, they say, porn can cause rape, child abuse, etc. Wooster takes a close, careful look at claims regarding the alleged porn-crime link.

Obviously, in publishing this cover story, we do not defend rape and child abuse. Those are, as reasonable people must agree, readily identifiable violations of individual rights. But even if reasonable people can also agree on what counts as execrable pornography—not always a simple matter, given the idiosyncracies of taste and emotion—we the people stand to suffer greater harm from a government assault on freedom than from the free circulation of such wares. That, finally, is the perspective from which we present this month's cover story (page 26).

We imagine, too, that Lucy Braun's article on her experiences as a Yale undergraduate (page 34) will arouse emotion and generate letters from readers—especially those who might well identify with what she has to say.

Braun, an economics major in the class of '84, joined REASON's staff last summer as an editorial assistant, after having worked for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. Egged on by some of the staff, primarily resident poetaster Bill Kauffman, Braun decided to set down some thoughts about her years at Yale.

As she makes clear in her memoir, "God and Woman at Yale," Braun regards her alma mater with deep, personal concern. Her connection to the university is, in fact, something of a family affair: both of her brothers and her father are also Yale alumnae. And it's in a spirit of familial affection that she describes the ideological intolerance that she encountered at Yale.

In the end, does the university deserve its acclaimed reputation for providing superior instruction in the liberal arts? "Yes," Braun says thoughtfully, with some reservation. "Not for the quality of teaching but for the potential for learning. Yale's an incredibly challenging place—and overcoming the political bias is one of those challenges."